Friday, January 18, 2008

Tell My Father I Didn’t Break the Rules

“Too Darn Hot” could be entirely excised from Kiss Me, Kate without affecting the story. Entirely. First off, it doesn’t develop anything. If you look at it literally, it’s Paul and chorus singing about it being too hot, then dancing, which means that they’re actually making themselves hotter. It does nothing to advance the Fred/Lilli or Bill/Bianca plots. Paul and Hattie are there, but it does nothing for them. Second, it’s hardly even character-specific. It could be Paul singing, that chorus guy, that other chorus guy, or someone from any other show. Thirdly, it’s basically 1940s pop. Had it not been so ribald, it would’ve been a major pop hit in its day. It’s that generic.

Fortunately, though, for those of us who are fans of the show, the creation of a Broadway musical, as with any other form of artistic expression, is not a simple matter of mathematics. Kiss Me, Kate is far more than just a love story and a love story subplot with an energetic opening number, love song, dynamic Act One closer, energetic Act Two opener, love song reprise, eleven o’clock number, and exit music.

Yeah, “Too Darn Hot” is essentially disconnected from the plot, is not terribly character-specific, and is pop. But it works. It works because it’s a great song in a perfect location that affects the audience in just the right way.

It’s not math. It’s art.

Sometimes we get caught up on the rules of structure. It’s not that the rules of structure aren’t important, but it is not an end in itself. I’ve read plenty of critiques of shows—both on message boards and in publication—that focus too much on what the show “should” have rather than what it does have.

In Ethan Mordden’s thought-provoking The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, he takes to task “Tell My Father” from The Civil War because he says the audience is expected to feel emotion for a character they’ve hardly known. Now, I only saw the tour, which was altered from the Broadway production, but the context seems about the same.

The Lehman Engel book of thought would agree with Mordden—and it certainly is a more than accurate theory in pretty much every case. If you have no emotional connection to a character, you’re not going to care two cents about their plight. If you saw the final scene of West Side Story without the rest of the show, it’d be just another girl crying over her hoodlum boyfriend. Yes, it makes complete sense.

However, it’s not math. It’s art.

To me, “Tell My Father” was extraordinarily effective because it was tapping into a character type, one that doesn’t need much to gain sympathy. I don’t have to know a person to see a story on the news and have my heart go out for the wife of a shooting victim, the daughter whose parents have been deported to Mexico, or the student who was brutally hazed. In the context of The Civil War, a piece that walked a fine line between musical theatre, concert, and mosaic, there was no need for established characters. I don’t have to know the personality of a boy killed in battle to sympathize with his last wishes. It’s an incredibly poignant song, a dying boy whose final thoughts are for earning love and respect from his father, a man who will undoubtedly have markedly different worries on his mind when the tragic news arrives.

Sometimes when the rules are broken, it flops big time. There’s a whole decade of shows Mordden details in his book whose memory has not survived past 1989. But even when you paint by the numbers, the show might thud anyway.

Then sometimes, you play with the rules, shifting things, experimenting, trying, or just doing what seems right for your story, and you wind up with Oklahoma! or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or Assassins.

It’s not the rule. It’s the effect.

the Broadway Mouth
January 18, 2008


Anonymous said...

Do you mean Lehman Engel? Ernest Lehman contributed to the Sound of Music screenplay, but I don't know of a musical theater philosophy that he's known for.

Cole Porter shows are full of moments that break the rules. He liked to throw in his nice ditties whether they fit the plot or not. Very much from the pre-R&H school of writing.

Broadway Blog said...

I'm so brain dead. Or perhaps operating on less sleep now that I'm back teaching.


charleston said...

And Ann Miller dancing the part in the movie didn't hurt either. But "Too Darn Hot" is a great song, I agree, and is fine edition to the show regardless.

I just recently discovered this blog, and I wanted to say that it's fantastic! Thanks so much for dedicating such an insightful blog to Broadway. And what is the new picture you've put up? That's Rachel York right?

Broadway Blog said...

Thank you for reading. Charleston. That picture is of Rachel York and Douglas Sills in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. The show website is still up (or was as of this past summer) with pictures.